March 18, 2004

Artificial Hearts Can Save Lives

Tyler Cown's Marginal Revolutions is generally a good read but I can't say I particularly like this article that argues against the idea that artificial hearts save lives.

The idea is that if there are only 2200 hearts made available each year, there are only 2200 lives that can be saved and only an increase in supply will increase lives saved. This has two problems with it, both of which rely on non-economic knowledge. First, not all hearts that are harvested can be used. It is quite possible that not all compatibility types are represented at any one time on the waiting list and if a heart comes available where there is no matching recipient available you either lose the heart or you stick it in somebody who isn't really compatible but will last long enough on their 'temporary' heart until a better one comes along (or the tissue rejection kills them). In other terms, for temporary artificial hearts to be useless, organ wastage has to be zero.

But beyond assuming wastage is zero, it also assumes that scientific advance is zero for all practical purposes. If you have a temporary artificial heart that extends your life 9 months, max and on month three, a new treatment for a permanent artificial heart or some other new advance comes about and you shift to the new technology, you would not have made it but for that temporary heart and it is proper to say that your life was saved by that stopgap measure. So, if a new technique can be applied to 10% of the donor waiting list, having a longer list increases lives saved.

The unfortunate reality is that too many economists make unwarranted assumptions and discredit perfectly good theories by spouting nonsense like artificial hearts won't save lives when a proper accounting of the facts would lead to the inevitable conclusion that they do (and by using the exact same theories, mind you).

Posted by TMLutas at March 18, 2004 12:27 PM